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Cham weavers give old art modern slant

Update: November, 16/2008 - 00:00

Cham weavers give old art modern slant

How do they do that? Foreign and local tourists come to the area especially to see Cham ethnic minority people weaving traditional brocade. — VNS Photos

All hands on deck: Local artisans in My Nghiep village try to preserve brocade weaving, considered part of the Cham people’s cultural identity.


People from the Cham ethnic minority are sustaining their traditional art of brocade with an eye to the future. Hoang Cong Tam finds out how.

My Nghiep brocade weaving village in Ninh Phuoc District, central Ninh Thuan Province, has a long-standing reputation among brocade lovers for its high-quality and creative products.

Local artisans in the village, like 73-year-old Phu Thi Mo, have spared no effort to develop their craft while still being careful to preserve the centuries-old trade of the Cham ethnic minority group.

Born into a family who has been making brocade for many generations, Mo’s mother taught her how to weave the textiles when she was ten years old. It took Mo seven years of observing and practising the challenging craft before she could weave the patterned brocades herself.

In recent years, Mo has observed that local artisans mostly focus on weaving simple patterns instead of the complex ancient patterns that used to be the trademark of the Cham ethnic minority group and are now rarely seen in the market place.

"About 50 years ago, I had a chance to see sophisticated brocade products with beautiful patterns that you can hardly find anymore, such as the stylised god Shiva, the god bird Garuda or dragons. Unfortunately, these products were lost during the wars," said Lam Gia Tinh, a scholar.

Mo has devoted her life to restoring these lost designs to preserve the village’s traditional craft.

"My Nghiep brocades are part of the Cham ethnic minority group’s cultural identity, so restoring the traditional craft means preserving the culture of the Cham people," she said.

However, the question of how to restore patterns created by ancient artisans of the village is not easy to answer, she said, adding that products made nowadays to sell to tourists are often low quality mass-produced brocades.

In 1993, a Japanese tourist with a passion for collecting Cham brocades, gave Mo a photo from the 1960s of a brocade product and asked her to make a reproduction.

"Observing the woven patterns in the photo, I burst into tears. I felt so lucky to once again see the traditional patterns created by our ancestors," she said.

Although she had never been taught how to weave such a brocade, Mo promised to make a reproduction for her Japanese customer.

With only the photo to go by, it took Mo three months of trial and error before she was able to create a copy of the ancient pattern.

Cultural identity

Brocade weaving is an important part of the Cham ethnic group’s culture. In order to preserve and develop that aspect of their culture, Mo keeps creating new brocade patterns and passing on her knowledge to a new generation of village weavers.

She requires young workers to pay close attention to every step, from how to move the point of a needle to the correct way to pass through a weft to create different patterns.

Due to the declining market economy, young artisans often pay more attention to the quantity rather than the quality of brocade products, she said. Many artisans use artificial silk to increase their profits and others even use machine to produce brocade, she added.

"When we weave brocade by hand, we put our soul into the product and ensure its quality. Weaving brocade by hand also helps workers understand how hard our ancestors worked," Mo said.

Even though they are expensive, products made by Mo are still attractive to customers because not only are they beautiful, but they represent a tangible piece of the Cham ethnic minority group’s history.

Brocade products from My Nghiep village have earned a firm foothold among foreign customers, including buyers from France, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Belgium.

Brocade production in the village has created jobs for hundreds of poor women, increasing their monthly income to VND1 million (US$60) each. Local authorities built a model craft village in 2002, establishing three co-operatives which have drawn over 250 local workers.

The province has also worked to turn My Nghiep village into a tourist destination to help local businesses develop trade and introduce foreign visitors to the culture of the Cham ethnic people.

Nearly 450 of the village’s 500 households have overcome poverty thanks to the ancient craft of brocade weaving. — VNS

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